Like set pieces of life, duels and their drama have starred in Western literature for centuries, a history presented by John Leigh in the newly-published Touché: The Duel in Literature. “Writers are drawn to duels,” Leigh explains, “in the interests of discovering something fundamental about human beings and the way they variously organize and delude themselves, the way they face one another, their fears, and, ultimately, death.” Fiction’s many famous bouts have helped the duel to sustain a cultural heft resonant of both honor and absurdity, able at a mention to evoke intense and complex emotions of a nature known to every era, as Leigh shows below.
In the weeks before last month’s General Election in Britain, politicians had begun to look bored by their own campaigns. The Premier League had already been won, the royal baby was refusing to appear, and the weather was dull. Suddenly, however, a challenge to a duel was made public, and a nation stirred. Yanek Zlinski, who was identified by the media as a Polish “Prince” (the application of the scare quotes has yet to provoke any further challenges), had invited Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), to cross swords in Hyde Park.
The proposed duel, of course, never took place. But Zlinski had made his point. He wished to suggest that UKIP’s stance on immigration, which comes largely from the poorer nations of Eastern Europe, constituted an affront rather than an argument and did not deserve to be dignified by opposition in dialogue. Furthermore, by challenging the Englishman to a duel, he intimated that Poland remained a no less honourable member of old Europe, enjoying with Britain a common allegiance to a cosmopolitan aristocratic culture.
The stunt would indeed appear to hark back to noble traditions of political antagonism, when campaigns (honouring the etymology of that word) would take politicians out onto the field in order to sort out their differences. Of course, the opposing sides in the House of Commons are still separated by the length of two swords. Yet this direct appeal to one of the party leaders may actually be a symptom of the Americanisation of British politics, for television debates, recently introduced into the UK after considerable debate about their form, appear to have encouraged the electorate to envisage leaders as more presidential personalities.